Charleston’s Husk Restaurant was chosen in 2011 by Bon Appetit as the nation’s #1 new restaurant.
A couple of foodies I know have raved about the place, so my friend Adrienne and I decided to check it out yesterday on our daylong trip to Charleston for a couple shows on the final Saturday of Spoleto. (More on those shows in an upcoming post.)
Warned about how far ahead Husk would be booked, I made our reservation all back in February, but I was pleased to find out that Husk routinely takes walk-ins as space allows. As we left a little after 7 p.m., we saw just one couple waiting — they had been unable to get reservations all week but were told there would be a table in a few minutes when they just showed up. All the other reservations had been seated.
And that relaxed vibe was characteristic of the entire restaurant. I could see into the kitchen from where I was sitting, so I was certainly conscious of the fast pace, but the tables all have a comfortable amount of space around them (almost all are 4-tops) and the earth-tone-clad servers were unfailingly pleasant, as their guests were seated at a perfect pace for good service.
Husk has catapulted itself onto the national scene in part because of its strong commitment to the farm-to-table concept and to the agrarian roots of Southern cooking. (Click here for a previous post on this issue, which touches on Husk.)
Here’s Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appetit:
As a son of the South, it’s always bugged me that I didn’t really grow up eating classic Southern food. My family did the pimiento cheese thing, but I missed out on homemade cast-iron skillet fried chicken, peanut soup, hominy grits, braised collard greens, pickled okra (actually, okra everything), fried green tomatoes, and piles of fluffy biscuits. A few restaurants in my hometown of Atlanta prided themselves on scratch cooking, but their numbers seemed to dwindle every year. Traditional Southern food, it seemed to me, was dying.And then a few years ago a curious thing happened: Southern-inspired dishes started popping up on menus across the country. My New York friends began asking me about country captain, Brunswick stew, and chess pie. Talented young Southern chefs, perhaps realizing they’d grown up with a food culture that was already “local” and “farm to table,” returned to their roots. America’s greatest regional cuisine was being rediscoveredâ€”and reborn.
Because we had 8 p.m. Spoleto tickets, we opted for an early dinner — the first available slot at 5:30. Husk is also open for lunch, with both day and evening menus changing daily.
I’m not going to pretend that Husk is cheap, but it’s less expensive than a number of Savannah restaurants that are doing less ambitious things. Including four drinks (three specialty cocktails and a good glass of wine), three appetizers, two entrees, and one side dish for the table, our bill with tax (but before tip) was right at $140.I often start really good meals with a martini or two (gin of course!), so I ordered a variant, The Ford Cocktail ($9 — less than many complex cocktails in Savannah) — Gordonâ€™s dry gin, Dolin dry vermouth, benedictine, and orange bitters. The flavor was curiously light, as the fruitiness seemed to negate some of the gin’s edge. I’ll add that the second one was better than the first, which simply needed to be a little colder. Adrienne tried the Rosco Pisco Punch with pisco, brandy, green tea, fire roasted orange, and raw sugar — it was obviously pretty sweet and beautifully served with a single large ice cube. Even though we had lunch only about 5 hours earlier, we decided to splurge for dinner and ordered far more than we needed from the list of starters, all incredibly tempting. Adrienne had been told in advance that the menu was fairly heavy on pork, but that was after a friend’s visit a couple of months. If Saturday was any indication, expect lots of great seafood and, obviously, fresh summer vegetables on the Husk menu in the coming weeks.
The chilled sweet corn soup would definitely have benefited from being a little more chilled, but what a wondrous mix of the corn, plump poached shrimp, and creamy mascarpone.We couldn’t resist trying the fried chicken skins (just $6!). I didn’t know quite what to expect, but the chicken flavor was richer and less fatty than I expected, while the breading added some touches I couldn’t really identify. The skins were especially good dipped in the little skillet of pimento cheese. Husk’s hot sauce is surprisingly mild, so we ended up adding quite a bit — I even put a good shake into the soup. I think the sauce could use another kick.
But the real test of the appetizers was the clams, which were served with a rich mix of vegetables and broth. All the elements worked together, and it was clear with that dish and throughout the meal that the kitchen knows how to handle vegetables perfectly. Chef Sean Brock and Chef de Cuisine Travis Grimes have clearly assembled a great staff that knows just how much and just how long to cook the fresh ingredients to maximize flavor.We both chose fish dishes for our entrees, though there were plenty of other tempting options, including guinea hen and heritage pork dishes that I paused over (all entrees were priced between $24 and $27).
The trout was exquisite, and the risotto under it even better. The portion was much larger than it appeared at first — and ditto for Adrienne’s grouper, which was a beautiful snow-white inside.
We ordered a potato hash for a side dish — at just $7 it seemed a shame not to try something else even though we hardly needed anything more. Served hot, the hash was enhanced by a slightly creamy roasted red pepper sauce.
Husk’s various regional vendors and growers were listed prominently on the menu, and a big chalkboard near the hostess stand also had a list. The extensive bar menu also lists sources where appropriate, especially for the bourbons from near where I was raised in Kentucky. Curiously, there was not a single Georgia farm or vendor on Husk’s long list of current suppliers, despite the fact that staples like peaches and shrimp are both now in season.
Georgia’s omission aside, it’s just great to see this renaissance of true Southern cooking.
Husk is a small but important player in that broader movement.